Nazareth, Israel, 24 October 2014

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

I’m supposed to be on my way to the airport, but I awoke at 6 am to find that my flight is delayed exactly 3 hours and 17 minutes.  I’ll look for somewhere to lodge a complaint if it ends up being 3 hours and 19 minutes.

When I do leave, I’ll be heading to NYC, where I’ll get to spend the better part of a day seeing my Joanna (my youngest sister), Jonathan (brother-in-law), my mother, and Leo, my newest nephew.  Until now I’ve had to be satisfied with photos and videos, but soon I’ll get to hold him for myself.  I’m looking forward to meeting him.

It has been a fruitful trip.  My father did arrive, and I got much done that I needed to do.  I spent many days hiking Shikhin’s hills, and I was able to see archaeological features that others had told me about, and in some cases mis-identified.  Now I can say with some confidence that of Shikhin’s three hills, the village, its synagogue, pottery and lamp industry, as well as grape pressing, occupied the northernmost hill. (If you fly to 32° 46.077'N / 35° 16.401'E on Google Earth, you’ll see this hill.  You’ll see Highway 77 to the north, agricultural fields to the north, east, and west, and a modern village called Hoshaya further to the east.  You’ll be able to click on links to photos of the ancient site of Sepphoris [Tsipori or Zippori National Park] to the south, near the modern village of Tsipori, which adopted the name of the ancient city.) 

The middle hill had tombs and some grape pressing industry as well.  Now I know that the tombs probably did not extend to the southern hill, which also supported some industries that I can’t yet identify.  Jebel Qat, which is the hill immediately to the east, housed some tombs and both grape and olive pressing.  Remnants of limestone quarries are everywhere, which, I reason, supported the building of the city of Sepphoris, since the village houses used fieldstones, whereas in the city they could afford to pay for nicely cut stones.  There don’t seem to be enough tombs.

I’ve identified two more miqvehs, or ritual baths, and I found a tomb that robbers had destroyed on the interior, probably looking for treasure.  They used a wrecking bar to dig into the soft chalk, almost completely wiping out the ancient carved “arcosolia,” or arched niches in the walls.  I found what remained of one, with the adze marks of the ancient workers still visible in the stone.  More lie beneath the soil that has silted in over 1,600 years, so we still might recover some information.  I kept the wrecking bar.

On Wednesday and Thursday my Israeli partner, Motti Aviam, graciously toured my father and me to ancient sites.  We saw et-Tell (which the excavator, Rami Arav, thinks is ancient Bethsaida, mentioned in the Gospels, among other places), el-Araj (another potential site for Bethsaida), Magdala, Hamam, Huqoq, Khirbet Kur, Omrit, Kedesh, and Bar ‘Am.  Many people have never heard of most of these, but they are crucial for understanding Galilee from the Hellenistic through the Roman periods, during which Shikhin flourished and was finally abandoned, never to see settlement again.  It is also the time that gave birth to Christianity and the Judaism of the Talmuds, so if you want to understand the beginnings of those religions, it sure helps to know something about the people who lived in this place in that time.  Ideas, after all, don’t float free in the ether, but are tied to bodies and objects, smells and sounds, and other realities of human existence.

The same is true today, of course, as politicians and devout people (sometimes they’re the same people, sometimes not) try to figure out how in the world to solve the problems that beset us.  It seems we can only make limited progress.  I don’t think that should stop us.  Jesus, after all, had no illusions about human failings when he announced that God’s kingdom had already arrived.   That’s probably because he read the Bible.  For their part, the Sages, who read the same Bible, reasoned hard about how to live out God’s Torah in a world that did not cooperate with them.  Later, Muhammad would take up a similar task.  All three bequeathed their struggles to their various heirs.

So, pray for peace, and live to bring it about.

From Nazareth,
James


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